Creating New Habits

What is a habit?  Dr. Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, quotes 19th century psychologist William James – that habits occur “without any consciously formed purpose or anticipation of result.”  We just do it automatically – we don’t plan it or think about it.  It may come as a surprise to us – us humans who think we choose all of our actions consciously – about 43% of our daily actions are habitual!

We’re in week 4 of the new year.  Many of us made resolutions to ourselves to change some behavior – resolved to be different this year.  It may be a bad habit that you want to stop or change to a better behavior.  It may be a new behavior – like exercise – that you are resolving to be more consistent with.

How do we create a new habit or stop a bad one?

When we are starting to build a new habit, it won’t be automatic.  When we start, we have to think about logistics and the reason for wanting to do it.  We have to plan how and when (I will get up one hour earlier tomorrow and take a run at the track), we will make excuses about the habit (It’s cold today – I can skip today’s run), we will negotiate with ourselves.

You may ask :  why would I want to relegate my conscious decision making to the backseat, and put things on autopilot?

Decision making consumes a lot of energy.  Reserve it for the most important stuff you have in your life and work.  When you exercise, what you eat, how you spend your time, what you wear do not have to be complicated decisions. If you’ve already determined your priorities on exercise, food, your time and your clothes, then eliminate the decision component and just do what you have determined you need to do.

Another quote from William James: “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their proper work.”

Automating our actions sounds easy, but I’m sorry to say, it’s not.  It’s hard.  And, it takes a while (like 30-60 days) to create a habit that is something we do without having to think about it.  This takes effort.  Here are some tips:

  • Do it every day at the same time.  Better if you can link it to an existing habit.  For example, you will now exercise before you shower in the morning.
  • Eliminate any barriers for doing the habit – some people wear their running clothes to bed so that when they get up in the morning, there’s no question what they are doing next
  • Remember why you are doing this – it’s not necessarily going to be fun all the time, but you are doing it for a larger purpose
  • When you’ve completed the habit, reward yourself – this could be as simple as checking it off your to-do list
  • Start small and manageable – if you haven’t been running for a while, you’re not set up for success to do a 5K.  Start with a manageable distance and increase it each day.

We are in unprecedented times – where control over our destiny feels tenuous.  But remember, the small things in our lives – like our routines and habits – are within our control.  It gives us a sense of self-determination that we may not feel in other parts of our lives. 

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